HARTFORD, N.Y. (NEWS10) – A classroom without a teacher affects everyone. Substitute teachers do what they can to acclimate to unfamiliar curriculums and even topics; students miss out on familiar faces and certain expertise; and the whole building feels the strain.

Imagine, then, how it must feel when even the pool of substitute teachers has run dry. Other teachers step in, stretching themselves thin and turning their own schedules upside-down to give their students all the support they can. At Hartford Central School District, and many like it, that struggle is a daily reality.

“On a day-to-day basis, we do not have enough substitutes to cover our classes,” said Andrew Cook, Superintendent at Hartford. “Our faculty and staff are stepping up, taking additional roles and responsibilities to ensure that we have coverage and can remain open.”

When possible, school districts like to keep a list of long-term substitutes. It doesn’t matter if the district is the size of Albany or Queensbury, or closer to Hartford’s, which has just under 500 students between pre-K and 12th grade. At any size, or any density, teachers get sick, take vacations, or leave due to other circumstances. Having a reliable name to call on makes a world of difference.

Not having those regulars also means a greater struggle when it comes time to fill in more specialized positions. At Hartford, one of the hardest-hit subjects is special education.

“There’s not a lot of certified individuals,” Cook explained, “and the state certification for special education is really specific.”

The good news for Hartford is that the school’s roughly 60 full-time teaching staff is fully-stocked, with no positions open. But when someone does need to take a leave of absence of any kind, it’s a challenge. Hartford is advertizing for long-term substitute positions, and as of Wednesday afternoon, had not seen a single applicant.

It also goes beyond just teachers. School districts far and wide have suffered issues finding school bus drivers. Hartford is no different; and, again, it’s substitutes that pose the greatest problem. Cook himself just recently got his own certification, and both he and the Hartford High School principal can be seen regularly behind the wheel.

A difficult road to certification

It’s a similar story at Warrensburg Central School District, where Superintendent Amy Langworthy says it was already sometimes a struggle to fill open positions and find substitute teachers before the COVID-19 pandemic. But it only got worse thereafter.

“It made things very challenging for schools on many days in the last couple years,” said Langworthy, who recently became the school district’s superintendent after serving a lengthy term as elementary school principal. “Certainly, we’re hopeful that issues with COVID will be a thing of the past soon, but I certainly don’t think that the shortage of substitutes and teacher’s assistants is going to go away with that. I think that’s going to be a struggle for some time.”

Warrensburg, which teaches around 700 students, sees a lot of the weight fall on teaching assistants, who are supposed to be aiding teachers by working with individual students or groups on specific issues. Instead, they’re the ones who often have to fill in. It’s a domino effect that extends from the classroom to impact things like supervision during lunch and recess periods.

Warrensburg and Hartford school districts both work with Warren-Saratoga-Washington-Hamilton-Essex (WSWHE) BOCES on many fronts; including finding those hard-sought substitute teachers. Langworthy is grateful for the help, but feels the real challenge isn’t just about finding new, ready-to-go substitutes. It’s about properly promoting and equipping the teaching assistants who so much work has fallen on.

“I think it’s going to take a much bigger effort to fill these needs. I know the governor has spoken about certification requirements for teachers, in order to allow people who want to transition from another career into teaching to do so a little bit easier,” she said. “I also think that it’s very challenging for teaching assistants, who are very qualified and know the job. There needs to be a pathway for them to get teaching certification, because they’re doing so many components of that job every day.”

New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke last month about expanding alternative routes for teacher certifications. Programs would be designed to help facilitate a transition for those who would leave other careers.

Langworthy has gone as far as to reach out to SUNY Plattsburgh – which works with WSWHE BOCES on several projects that help teaching assistants get that certification. Students who go through the “Classroom Academy” program spend two years working as a teaching assistant while taking classes through SUNY Plattsburgh, often getting the education paid for in part through grants. That helps with the other looming reality: the high cost of education.

“Not only do they need a four-year degree, but they also need to get a Master’s degree at their own expense. You’re talking about people who incur a lot of student loan debt, and then get a position ranging anywhere from $40K to $50K as a novice teacher. That’s a lot to consider when you could choose another career that would pay just as much with a lot less student loan debt,” Langworthy said.

For the love of the kids

Teachers do all they can for the students, and students, in turn, roll with the changes as best they can. But that doesn’t change the fact of the matter.

“It’s difficult on students,” Cook said. “It’s wonderful that our faculty are stepping up, and it’s great that the students respect that and work with them all the time, but it does put an additional strain on the staff.”

That strain especially hits more specialized areas, like sciences and foreign language. If one teacher has to be absent and another steps in, there’s inconsistency in the lesson plan that can come from someone less qualified taking the wheel – even for a day. When the full-time instructor returns, that means more review and adjustment, which can slow things down.

Changing up who’s leading the class can have a huge impact on students. Different teaching styles and personalities can change how comfortable students are, and how well they’re able to learn if it’s an environment where something has gone through a sudden, radical change. Relationships between students and the teachers who get to know them can make a huge difference – and their loss leaves a crater.

“There are routines, procedures, expectations – things that work very well if you have a student who has some special needs or behavioral challenges,” said Langworthy. “The teacher who is with them every day, day in and day out, really knows how to address those best, and how to handle the situation. The problem comes into play when you have a lack of academic content when someone is only there for a day (…) and they don’t know all the routines. They don’t know the content as well.”

While both districts work with WSWHE BOCES to seek better solutions and more helping hands, there’s more that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed for schools. Both Langworthy and Cook’s names are on a letter sent last week by WSWHE BOCES to Gov. Hochul and state Education Commissioner Mary Bassett, calling for a “Pathway to Normalcy.”

The letter, signed by 31 area school districts, called for clearer guidelines for school districts to follow when enforcing coronavirus safety, masks, and in-person instruction. The issue of students losing the familiar face of a teacher they trust and like is only made worse when they have to learn remotely. Cook’s name is featured prominently on the letter; he signed it, in his dual roles as Hartford principal and Chairperson of WSWHE BOCES’ Chief School Officer Advocacy Committee. He sees the issue as tying right into his district’s struggle to get substitute educators in the building.

“The letter is seeking to establish a partnership and to create a dialogue with Governor Hochul and Commissioner Bassett which will then allow school districts to have a voice in developing a roadmap/path back to normalcy,” Cook said. “As part of these conversions, we wish to ensure that the Governor is aware of the daily struggles of our districts to remain open under the current regulations, including shortages for faculty and staff positions.  School districts have had to adhere to different rules than the general population which, in turn, often frustrates individuals who may be exploring career, or substitute, opportunities in districts. The quicker we can return to ‘normal,’ the quicker we can begin to further address non-COVID concerns.”